There is a stereotype regarding men and women that says that men like to solve problems while women like to seek sympathy and see a problem as a way to relate. OK, there is some truth here, but it is more of a vague tendency than a strong trait, and there are exceptions on both sides. The video below depicts the stereotype quite humorously.
But there is a human problem, shared by most of both sexes, wherein people seek relief more so than healing. Healing takes guts; it requires courageous change and often involves difficult choices. Many would rather seek quick answers than face the deeper issues that often drive their struggles. Thus a person may want relief from anxiety but not want to look at his lack of faith, or the unrealistic expectations and perfectionism that may drive his anxiety and low self-confidence. Many would prefer to take a pill to solve their problems (ignoring the potential side effects) instead of looking at the lifestyle choices that often underlie their issues.
We all need some sympathy, but we also need to be summoned to examine how we contribute to our own malaise. Consider that as you enjoy this humorous video.
As we turn in this week of Easter to the Acts of Paul section of the Acts of the Apostles, we do well to ponder the kinds of sufferings the apostles endured to announce the gospel and win souls for Christ. In the “softer” Church of the declining West, it is hard for us even to imagine such suffering. How many Catholics today can even bear to rouse themselves to get to an hour-long Mass on Sunday? How many of us clergy will not speak the truth because we’re afraid of getting a raised eyebrow?
All but one of the first apostles suffered martyrdom as well as countless other sufferings before their lives were brutally ended. It is argued that 30 of the first 33 popes died as martyrs, two others died in exile, and only one died in his bed.
We should never fail to thank God for the heroic ministry of the early Christians, clergy and laity alike, who risked everything to believe and to announce the gospel. Having encountered Christ, they were so transfixed by His truth and His very person that they could not remain silent. Even in the face of persecution and death, the apostles declared, simply and forcefully, we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).
As a tribute to them and to the early Church, I present here a catalogue of sorts of St. Paul’s sufferings. We know the most about Paul’s trials, but surely many others also suffered. As you read through what he endured, remember the many others as well. When discomfited by a mere inconvenience or a minor persecution, consider the price that others paid so that we could know Christ and be saved.
In this first passage, God announced Paul’s sufferings to Ananias:
For he is a chosen vessel of mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake (Acts 9:15-16).
Here are some of Paul’s own descriptions of what he endured:
We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always manifesting the death of Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you (2 Corinthians 4:8-12).
… in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
… in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fasting; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things (2 Corinthians 6:3-20).
Why do I still suffer persecution? [For, if not,] the offense of the cross has ceased (Galatians 5:11).
Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
… my doctrine, my manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me (2 Timothy 3:10-11).
And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour? I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily …. [Indeed] I have fought with beasts at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:30-32).
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first … (Galatians 4:13).
From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the brandmarks of the Lord Jesus (Galatians 6:7).
I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart (Romans 9:1-2).
Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me …. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus …. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense [in Jerusalem] no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed, and all the Gentiles might hear it. So, I was rescued from the lion’s mouth (2 Timothy 4:10-17).
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have longed for His appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Lest you think that St. Paul exaggerated in his descriptions, consider the following occurrences documented by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles:
Fellow Jews plot to kill Paul in Damascus and he must be lowered in a basket from city walls to escape (Acts 9:23).
Hellenists seek to kill him in Jerusalem, so he must flee to Caesarea (Acts 9:29).
Paul is persecuted and run out of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:15).
Facing likely arrest and stoning at Iconium, Paul flees to Lystra and Derbe (Acts 14:5).
He is stoned, dragged out of Lystra, and left for dead (Acts 14:19).
Paul is opposed by elders and others in Jerusalem (Acts 15:11).
He is arrested as a disturber of the peace, beaten with rods, and imprisoned at Philippi (Acts 16:23).
Paul is ordered by Roman officials to leave Philippi (Acts 16:39).
Attacked where he lodged in Thessalonica, Paul must be secreted away to Beroea (Acts 17:5-7, 10).
Paul is forced out of Beroea and must flee to Athens (Acts 17:13-15).
He is mocked in Athens for teaching about the resurrection (Acts 17:32).
Paul is apprehended by fellow Jews and taken before the judgment seat of Gallio in Corinth (Acts 18:12).
He is opposed by the silversmiths in Ephesus, who riot against him (Acts 19:23-41).
Paul is plotted against by the Jews in Greece (Acts 20:3).
He is apprehended by the mob in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27-30).
Paul is arrested and detained by the Romans (Acts 22:24).
He barely escapes being scourged (Acts 22:24-29).
Paul is rescued from the Sanhedrin and Pharisees during their violent uprising in Jerusalem (Acts 23:1-10).
Assassination plots are made against him by fellow Jews, who swear an oath to find and kill him (Acts 23:12-22).
Paul endures a two-year imprisonment in Caesarea (Acts 23:33-27:2).
He is shipwrecked on the island of Malta (Acts 27:41-28:1).
Paul is bitten by a snake (Acts 28:3-5).
He is imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28:16-31).
Paul was executed by decapitation ca. 68 A.D.
Never forget the price that others have paid in order that we may come to saving faith. At every Mass, remember that the Creed we profess was written in the blood of martyrs.
The movie Paul, Apostle of Christ is a worthy tribute to St. Paul and the suffering of the early Christians:
There is a tendency today to trivialize and reduce the human person. One of the ways we do this is by claiming that it doesn’t really matter what people think or believe, only that they behave well. For example, we think that if a man is a good citizen, pays his taxes, doesn’t beat his wife, and is kind to children and animals then it doesn’t matter what he believes. This trivializes the man, because each of us was made to know the one, true God. We were made to know the truth and, knowing this truth, to be set free (Jn 8:32). God’s plan for us is more than just that we behave “well” from a human perspective. He offers each of us a complete transformation: a new mind and heart, attained through personal knowledge and experience of Him. This will certainly affect our behavior, but God is offering us much more than just to be considered “nice” by other people.
One of the ways Scripture expresses what God is offering us at a deeper level is the appeal to the mind that so frequently occurs in the New Testament. The very first words of Jesus as He began His public ministry announced the invitation to receive a new mind. Sadly, most English translations do not adequately capture what the Greek text actually reports Jesus as saying. Most English renderings of Jesus’ opening words are “Repent and believe the Good News” (cf. Mark 1:15; Matt 3:2). The most common meaning of “to repent” is to reform one’s behavior, to do good and avoid evil, to stop sinning. The Greek word used in the text is far richer than this. Μετανοείτε (metanoeite) most literally means “to come to a new mind.” It comes from meta (hard to translate perfectly into English but often indicating accompaniment, change, or movement of some sort) and nous or noieo (meaning mind or thought). Hence, metanoeite means thinking differently, reconsidering, coming to a new mind. So, what the Lord is more fully saying is this: “Come to new mind and believe in the Good News.”
Thus, Jesus is not merely saying that we should clean up our act. He is inviting us to come to a new mind, which He alone can give us. If we think differently, we will surely act differently. Metanoeite can and does include the notion of reformed behavior, but it is the result of a new mind. If we think differently (by the new mind Christ will give us), we will start to see things more as God does. We will share His priorities, His vision. We will love what He loves. We will think more as He does. This will effect a change in our behavior.
There is a famous quote (attributed to various sources) that goes like this: “Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.” Notice how it all begins with the mind. Our mind shapes our decisions, habits, character, and ultimately our destiny.
The mind is the deepest part of the human person. It is not always possible in Scripture to perfectly distinguish between the word “mind” and the word “heart.” Sometimes they are used interchangeably and at other times to mean different things. For the purpose of this discussion, the mind can be understood as quite similar to the heart in that it is at the deepest part of the human person, where thought, memory, imagination, and deliberation take place. The mind is not to be equated merely with the brain or the intellect; it is deeper and richer than these. Using the mind is not simply a function of the physical body but rather involves the soul as well. The mind is where we live, think, reflect, ponder, remember, and deliberate.
Hence, in appealing to the mind, God is offering a transformation of the whole human person, for it is from within the mind and heart that all proceeds. Good behavior is a nice goal, but God does not trivialize us by trying to reform only our behavior. He offers us much more: to transform us.
Thus, what a person thinks and believes does matter. In these hyper-tolerant times, in which tolerance is one of the few agreed-upon virtues remaining, we like to brush aside the details. We are almost proud of ourselves for affirming that people can think and believe whatever they want as long as they behave well. Perhaps a person is free to think whatever he pleases, but we are foolish to think that this does not ultimately influence his behavior. Our dignity is that we were made to know the truth and thus to know Jesus Christ, who is the truth and the only way to the Father (Jn 14:6). Hence, our dignity is not just an outer transformation but an inner one as well. In fact, it is an inner transformation that leads to an outer transformation.
Below are a few more Scripture passages that refer to the mind as the locus of transformation and the main battleground where grace must win. Without a transformed, clear, sober mind we will give way to sin and bad behavior. Transformation begins with the mind. My comments on each text appear in red.
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2). Transformation comes by the renewal of the mind.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. … [For] although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools …. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. … He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Rom 1:18 ff selectae). Suppression of the truth leads to a depraved mind, which leads to depraved behavior. It begins in the mind, which is the real battleground.
Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires (Rom 8:5). Sinful nature proceeds from a worldly mind. Those who have received the gift of the Spirit and embraced it fully have their minds set on what God desires. The remainder of Romans 8 goes on to describe the complete transformation of the human person resulting from having the mind set on what God desires.
The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor 4:4). Worldly thinking leads to spiritual blindness.
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. You, however, did not come to know Christ that way … put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:17-24). The bad behavior of the Gentiles comes from minds that are frivolous and darkened. The new mind we receive from Christ gives us a new, transformed self.
Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things (Phil 3:19). Destruction comes from a mind that is set on earthly things.
This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people(Heb 8:10). God does not merely want to improve our behavior. He wants to transform us interiorly, to a new mind and heart that have his law written deeply in them.
The double-minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). When the mind is divided or impure, behavior is corrupted.
Therefore, gird the loins of your mind; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:13). A sober and clear mind that actively seeks God’s will leads to a self-controlled and hopeful life.
The end of all things is near. Therefore, be of clear mind and self-controlled so that you can pray (1 Peter 4:7). In turbulent times it is necessary to have a clear, sober mind so as to be able to control one’s behavior and to be serene enough to pray.
The lyrics of this song (“Caribbean Medley” or “I’ve Got My Mind Made Up,” by Donnie McClurkin) say, “I’ve got my mind made up and I won’t turn back because I want to see my Jesus someday.”
In polling friends as to what they think is the deepest root of all sin, I got three main answers. One was a shrug indicating no answer at all (i.e., “I dunno”). Another was to refer to Scripture: For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils (1 Tim 6:10). I’ll discuss below why this is an inadequate answer. The third main response was that original sin (and the concupiscence that followed) is the source of all of our other sins. The only problem with that answer is that it doesn’t explain Adam and Eve’s (original) sin, nor does it explain the fall of the angels, who seem to have fallen in great numbers without original sin or concupiscence and are now demons. Therefore an even deeper root must be sought.
Referencing St. Thomas Aquinas and Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, permit me to answer that the deepest root of all sin is inordinate self-love. From this root springs all sin, including the original sin of Adam and that of the angels. It is true that our fallen condition has intensified the problem of inordinate self-love, but the possible temptation to it was there before.
For to what else did Satan appeal when he said to Eve,and you will be like God (Gen 3:5)? And indeed, by what were Lucifer and all the other fallen angels tempted when they mysteriously rebelled and, in effect, declared their non serviam (I will not serve)? Adam and Eve as well as all the angels (though sinless and not fallen) chose to love themselves more than God. They would not love or trust God more than they loved themselves. For the angels it was a “one and you’re done” decision. For us, the drama continues, but will end with our definitive and lasting decision either to love God or to love our own self more.
The inordinate love of self is the most fundamental root of all sin. We all know its power and its pernicious quality. Even the most wonderful things we do are tainted when we do them more for personal praise and glory than for love of God and neighbor.
Let me summarize a few insights from Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange. He begins from Scripture.
From inordinate self-love, the root of every sin, spring the three concupiscences which St. John speaks of when he says: “For all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, which is not of the Father, but of the world” (1 John 2:16).
The concupiscence of the flesh is the inordinate desire of what is, or seems to be, useful to the preservation of the individual and of the species, [Gluttony and Lust] … Voluptuousness can thus become an idol …
The concupiscence of the eyes is the inordinate desire of all that can please the sight: of luxury, wealth, money … From this is born avarice [greed]. The avaricious man ends by making his treasure his god, adoring it and sacrificing everything to it: his time, his strength, his family, and sometimes, his eternity …
The pride of life is the inordinate love of our own excellence … [from this is born pride, anger, envy, and sloth]. [He who has pride of life] ends by becoming his own god, as Lucifer did.
Inordinate self-love leads us to death, according to the Savior’s words: “He that loveth his life (in an egotistical manner) shall lose it; and he that hateth (or sacrifices) his life in this world, keepeth it unto life eternal” (Jn 12:25). … Only a greater love, the love of God, can conquer self-love. (Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life (Tan Publications) Vol 1: 300-301, 368-370)
St. Thomas says, “All sinful acts spring from inordinate self-love, which hinders us from loving God above all else and tempts us to turn away from him” (Summa Theologica I, IIae, q. 77 a. 4; et 84, a. 4).
[E]very sinful act proceeds from inordinate desire for some temporal good. Now the fact that anyone desires a temporal good inordinately, is due to the fact that he loves himself inordinately; for to wish anyone some good is to love him. Therefore it is evident that inordinate love of self is the cause of every sin (Summa Theologica 77.4 respondeo).
To the objection that Scripture says, “For the love of money [literally covetousness] is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim 6:10), St. Thomas responds,
The desire of money is said to be the root of sins, not as though riches were sought for their own sake, as being the last end; but because they are much sought after as useful for any temporal end. And since a universal good is more desirable than a particular good, they move the appetite more than any individual goods, which along with many others can be procured by means of money (Summa Theologica I, IIae, 84, 1 ad 2).
In other words, “money” is desired as a means not an end, not for its own sake but as a means to indulge inordinate self-love. So, inordinate self-love is a deeper root than the love of money. Money is desired to facilitate and actualize the deeper problem.
St. Thomas goes on to show how the Capital Vices (sins) flow from inordinate self-love. What follows are my own reflections, based loosely on his.
Pride (sometimes called vainglory) – We love our own apparent excellence more than the certain and greater excellence of God, or the excellence that may exist in others.
Greed – We have an excessive and insatiable love of things due to our excessive love of ourselves and the perceived need to have these things for our sake.
Lust – Out of excessive love of self and desire to please ourselves, we desire others for the pleasure they can give us, rather than loving them for their own sake.
Anger – Our excessive self-love causes us to regard many things and people (including God) fearfully and then angrily, perceiving them as threatening. So we angrily and unrighteously resist them.
Gluttony – Our excessive love of self causes us to satisfy our passion for food and drink beyond what is healthy in the long run, what is respectful of God, or what is generous to others.
Envy – Our excessive self-love and egotism give us a sadness about the goodness or excellence of others because we perceive it as lessening our own share of praise or glory.
Sloth – Our excessive love of self makes God seem to be a usurper of our life, our time, our opinions, or our pleasure. So we are sad about or avoid His plan for our happiness.
This, then, is the deepest root of all of our sin. We cannot simply blame the world or the devil, though they are not to be excluded either. But inordinate self-love is what gives the world and the devil easy access to us. This is the “button” they push for easy results.
This source of sin is a lot closer and far more subtle than we imagine. Only a greater love—the love of God—can conquer self-love. And thus the greatest commandment is this: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matt 22:37-40).
Indeed, and so does our healing hang on these two commandments. Ask for a greater love of God, a proper love of self, and the gift to love your neighbor with that same proper love.
Many people say that they don’t hear too many sermons about Hell anymore. I believe this is true in general, but I will say that I preach about it a good bit. However, I would like to point out that the same could be said about sermons on Heaven. Try to remember the last time you heard a sermon that dealt with the topic let alone inspired a longing for Heaven. Too many sermons focus on this world: how to live in it, how to deal with moral and ethical problems, and how to be happier in it. It is not wrong to preach about such things as long as it does not divert focus from our ultimate destination: Heaven or Hell. To be vague, uninspiring, or silent about our goal and desired destination is spiritually disastrous.
To illustrate, consider a man who sets out in his car for New York City from Washington, D.C. His destination guides every turn he takes, every navigational decision he makes. If he sees a sign that says, “South to Richmond” he knows not to take that exit. He doesn’t have to deliberate; the answer is clear because his destination is clear. Consider, though, what might happen if he were uncertain about where he was going or forgot: The road signs might cause stress and confusion. He might think, “Perhaps this is the way I should go … or maybe not. How do I know? Maybe there will be fun things to see and do along that route.” Soon enough he might be driving all over the map, lost in diversions, distractions, and—ultimately—dead ends. He might in fact see some pleasant sights along the way, but deep down he would begin to sense that none of this driving around was adding up to anything.
Without a destination we are lost, confused, and worried. To live without a clear goal is stressful because we have little basis on which to make good decisions; every choice seems difficult. With little ability to determine what is truly good for us, we focus on temporary pleasure, becoming easy prey for the hucksters of this world. So, our credit cards are maxed out, our hearts are divided, and we feel unmoored.
Where are we going? When was the last time we really thought about it? Too many of us are living unreflective, directionless lives. We don’t really know where we are going, but we’re sure in a big hurry to get there!
Have a goal: Heaven! Focus on it. Dream about it. Long for it. Make it direct your modus vivendi. We should want to die loving God and our neighbor so that we can go home to Heaven and be with God forever. Let every decision you make be in service of this one, clear goal. Carefully review your life and ask yourself, “Am I moving closer to my goal? How? What things have hindered me or diverted me from it?”
Consider this beautiful meditation from Pope St. Gregory the Great, which is in the Office of Readings this week:
If anyone enters the sheepfold through me, he shall be saved; he shall go freely in and out and shall find good pasture. He will enter into a life of faith; from faith he will go out to vision, from belief to contemplation, and will graze in the good pastures of everlasting life.
So our Lord’s sheep will finally reach their grazing ground where all who follow him in simplicity of heart will feed on the green pastures of eternity. These pastures are the spiritual joys of heaven. There the elect look upon the face of God with unclouded vision and feast at the banquet of life for ever more.
Beloved brothers, let us set out for these pastures where we shall keep joyful festival with so many of our fellow citizens. May the thought of their happiness urge us on! Let us stir up our hearts, rekindle our faith, and long eagerly for what heaven has in store for us.
To love thus is to be already on our way. No matter what obstacles we encounter, we must not allow them to turn us aside from the joy of that heavenly feast.
Anyone who is determined to reach his destination is not deterred by the roughness of the road that leads to it. Nor must we allow the charm of success to seduce us, or we shall be like a foolish traveler who is so distracted by the pleasant meadows through which he is passing that he forgets where he is going (From a homily on the Gospels by Pope St. Gregory the Great, Hom. 14, 3-6: PL 76, 1129-1130).
In his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul wrote,
This one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus. Whatever was an asset to me I count as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things as loss compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him …. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been perfected, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me … (Phil 3: 7-9; 12-14).
What are we to make of “the numbers”? As the Church it is hard to ignore the large decline in attendance at Mass and reception of the sacraments, yet the Lord never seemed overly concerned with numbers; He even distrusted them.
The information can help us to gauge the effectiveness of our preaching, teaching, and engagement of God’s people; it can also be a pernicious temptation to water down the gospel just to improve our numbers. The data* below showing the change over the past fifty or so years don’t paint a pretty picture:
These are astonishing declines! Remember, too, that these dry figures represent individual human beings called to know, love, and serve God in the Church here on earth and one day in the Church Triumphant in Heaven. Every loss is a soul who may be lost forever.
Many want to attribute the decline to this or that cause and then propose solutions. The danger, of course, is merely trying to increase the numbers and forgetting that our mission is not to be popular but to be a colony of Heaven, a people set apart; we were promised persecution and the world’s hatred, not its esteem or love. It is not our goal to be hated, of course, but it is sometimes our lot.
These numbers should sober us and cause us to consider how we—clergy and laity—may have contributed to this decline.
It is not entirely our fault, however. The problem cannot be fully resolved merely through better techniques or more engaging presentations—and it certainly will not be rectified by watering down or even ignoring the Lord’s more challenging teachings.
Consider that even the greatest evangelizer who ever graced this world, Jesus, lost a significant number of followers because of His teachings. He was quite willing to do this because it is the truth that saves and sets us free. Better to save some than to dilute or disregard the truth and lose everyone. Many of Jesus’ followers deserted Him after He taught that the Eucharist was His true Body and Blood (Jn 6:66). Many people scoffed at His teaching against divorce (Mat 19:10). Even residents of His own home town turned on Him when He praises the Gentiles (Luke 4:29). No one could preach the way Jesus could (Jn 7:46). No one was more eloquent. No one more perfectly exuded the Holy Spirit than Christ. To these He added miracles and the personal authority of His holiness and divinity. Yet He, too, was rejected, even by some of His disciples. Think about how small the Church looked on that Good Friday at noon: only John, Mary, and a few other women stayed with Him. Yet never was the Church more pure and powerful than at that very moment.
Concern for the decline in our numbers is proper, but it should not cause us to be so overwrought that we abandon hope or lose faith in the teachings we have received from the Lord Himself. Consider well that the mainline (liberal) Protestant denominations have cast aside many Christian dogmas as well as nearly every moral doctrine in order to appeal to modernity, and their decline has been even more precipitous than ours.
One surprising thing to note is that Jesus did not seem to trust crowds; some of His most challenging teachings were addressed to large numbers of people:
Large crowds were now traveling with Jesus, and He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:25-26).
In the meantime, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, so that they stepped one on another, he began to say to his disciples first of all, “Beware you of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1).
Large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there …. [And Jesus said to them] “Now I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman, commits adultery.” His disciples said to Him, “If this is the case between a man and his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt 19:1-2; 9-10).
Truly, truly, I tell you, it is not because you saw these signs that you are looking for Me, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you (John 6:26-27).
So critical were His teachings, particularly on the Eucharist, that Jesus was willing to lose some—even many—in order to save others. A watered-down gospel cannot save. Jesus would not remove unpopular teachings to gain numbers, for that would be to lose everyone and everything.
What, then, are we to do? The answer is not complicated—we are to preach the truth. St. Paul wrote to Timothy in this regard:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. So they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:1-5).
The task is clear. We must preach the full gospel, whether it is in season or out of season. And when it is out of season (as it certainly is today) it is all the more important that we reprove, encourage, and rebuke while patiently enduring any hardship or persecution that may result.
Perhaps this decline should encourage us to be more earnest in our efforts and to look for various effective ways to reach this increasingly doubtful, skeptical, stubborn world. New methods may be considered but never an alteration of the message itself, for Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings (Heb 13:8-9).
We do well to recall the strange story of the census that David took of his people (2 Samuel 24). God was displeased with the census and even issued a severe punishment for it. Why? There are many possible reasons, but something tells me that it was God’s way of saying, “David, it is none of your business how many people I have. They are mine, after all, not yours. Your strength is not in numbers but in me.” Gideon heard a similar message (Judges 7).
Jesus has sent us to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt 28:18-20).
Whether the Church is large or small, we must sow the seed of His Word. God alone knows the harvest. No matter what the numbers look like, let’s get to back to work!
The Lord says, “My sheep hear my voice.” That’s right, He called us sheep. Get a little indignant with me here! The Lord is comparing us not to majestic eagles, beautiful gazelles, swift horses, mighty lions, or clever doges, but to sheep. While reality may hurt, the truth can liberate. Although sheep are considered somewhat lowly animals, they are valuable as well. Let’s consider today’s Gospel in three stages.
I. THE SIGN OF THE SHEEP – What does the Lord mean in using sheep as a sign for us? Here are some qualities of sheep that may help illustrate what He is teaching.
Sheep are WAYWARD – They tend to wander off. A sheep will graze for a while and then look around and seem to wonder, “Where am I?” He doesn’t know how to get back to the fold unless the shepherd goes out and brings him back. Sheep just keep on going and don’t come back. Dogs and cats can find their way home, horses can find the barn, but sheep can’t manage to find their way back without the shepherd seeking them out and guiding them.
Don’t tell me that doesn’t describe us! Like sheep, we have gone astray, each to his own way (Isaiah 53:6). Yes, we easily become lost. We need the sheepfold of the Church; we need Christ the Shepherd, ministering through His Pope, bishops, and priests. Without that we would just wander here and there.
Sheep are WITLESS – Sheep are just not that bright. We train dogs, birds, horses, and even lions, but you don’t hear about trained sheep too frequently!
We human sheep like to think we’re smart. Sure, we’ve been to the moon, and we have all this advanced technology, but too many of us aren’t even bright enough to pray every day, go to Mass on Sundays, and follow God’s basic directions for life.
We’re so witless that we do things that we know will harm us. Even the simplest directions from God we either confuse or stubbornly refuse to follow. We cop an attitude and say, “We know a few things too.” That’s right, we know veryfew things.
In fact, we’re so dumb that we think we’re smarter than God! We think our way is better than His way. Now that is really dumb!
Sheep are WEAK – Sheep have no way to protect themselves. Mules can kick, cats can scratch, dogs can bite, rabbits can run away, and skunks—well, you know what they can do—but without the care of the shepherd and the help of sheep dogs, sheep are doomed! The wolf comes and all they can do is stand there get devoured.
So it is with us. If it were not for the care of Jesus the Good Shepherd, we’d be cornered by the world, the flesh, and the devil. If it were not for the Lord and the power of His grace, we would be toast!
We like to think we’re strong; we have armies, political power, monetary power, and star power that can feed that illusion. Then at the slightest temptation we fall! We need the Lord and His grace and mercy, or we don’t stand a chance. We are weak and prone to sin.
Sheep are WORTHWHILE – In Jesus’ day, many a man counted his wealth by the number of sheep he owned. Shepherds made many sacrifices to breed, herd, and protect these valuable animals, which provided meat, milk, and wool. So it is with us. At times we may not feel worthy, but apparently we were worth saving because the Lord paid the price of our redemption. He knew the price and paid it all—not with silver and gold but with His own precious blood (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Sheep WALK together – Sheep flock together and are safer that way. To be a solitary sheep is dangerous; it’s a good way to get eaten.
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). Scripture also says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Eccles 4:10). Sheep are not supposed to go off on their own, and neither are we.
We are called to part of a flock and to be under the care of a shepherd. Most of us realize this in a parish setting, but in the wider sense, each of us is under the care of a bishop and ultimately the care of the Pope, who is the chief shepherd and Vicar of Christ, the Good Shepherd.
The Lord Jesus said that there is to be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16). God wants us to be in the protection of the flock with a shepherd watching over us. An old spiritual says, “Walk together, children. Don’t you get weary. There’s a great camp meeting in the promised land.” Too many like to point out that the Pope doesn’t know this or that, but please consider that to wander from the care of the flock and the shepherd is a mighty dangerous thing.
Sheep are WARY – In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers (John 10:11-14).
Sheep have the remarkable quality of knowing their master’s voice and of instinctively fearing any other.
In this matter, sheep are smarter than most of us, for we do not flee voices contrary to Christ’s. Instead, we draw close to those voices and ask, “Tell me more.” In fact, we spend a lot of time and money to listen to those other voices. We buy televisions so that the enemy’s voice can influence us and our children. We spend large amounts of time watching television, listening to the radio, and perusing the Internet.
Yes, we can so easily be drawn to the enemy’s voice. Not only do we not flee from it, we feast upon it. Instead of rebuking it, we rebuke the voice of God. We put His Word on trial instead of putting the world on trial.
We must be more wary, like sheep, and respond only to one voice: that of the Lord speaking though His Church. We must flee every other voice.
II. THE SAFETY OF THE SHEEP – Jesus goes on to say, my sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.
Note Jesus’ promise that He will not be overpowered, no one can snatch from His hand. The Book of Daniel says, His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom that shall not be destroyed, his kingship shall not be destroyed (Dan 7:14). In no way can the devil have power over Jesus or His flock.
This is all predicated on what’s been said: if we want protection and safety, we have to know only Jesus’ voice and stop running after all sorts of false shepherds and contrary voices. We have to stay with the true Shepherd, Jesus, and within the protection of His flock. If you want safety, stay in the shelter of Jesus’ shepherding.
Let us be clear on this point: no weapon waged against us can ever prosper (Isaiah 54:17). Satan cannot harm us unless we open the door. Satan is like a dog on a leash: he can only harm us if we get too close to him through our own foolish decisions! Satan is a chained dog; do not stray into his range or territory!
Yet so many people do! They savor the darkness of pop culture, visit pornographic Internet sites, consume a steady diet of revengeful “action” movies, and are drawn in by commercials telling them to buy the latest product with its promises of empty fulfillment. A steady stream of polluted water and then we wonder why we are sick and weak, full of the parasites of sin.
Is it any wonder that our thinking is distorted, unbiblical, dark, and foolish? At least sheep know to flee a false shepherd. Too many of us are intrigued by the ranting of false shepherds. We glamorize evil and fill our minds with false teaching and improper priorities.
Thus, while no one can snatch from Jesus’ hand, this is not some magical protection that prevents us from foolishly and sinfully walking away from Him. If we do walk away, woe to us; if we stray, our strength will fail!
Pay attention, fellow sheep: do not stray from the Shepherd. The protection of the Lord is only for those who desire and freely choose such protection. He can protect you, but not if you live a double life or open the door to your heart to Satan. The Lord is not a slave owner; He is a lover who invites us to freely accept His offer of new life rooted in a loving and trusting relationship with Him.
Do you know His voice? Do you know only His voice? Do you run form every voice contrary to His, or do you seek counselors who tell you what your itching ears want to hear? (cf2 Tim 4:3) If you remain true, you have the protection of the Savior Jesus Christ, and nothing will ever harm you (Luke 10:19)—but if you stray, be not surprised at the presence of wolves.
III. THE SALVATION OF THE SHEEP – The text goes on to say, I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
For the flock of the Lord there is the gift of “eternal life.” Too many Christians equate this with some distant future that they vaguely hope to attain.
Eternal life does mean the capacity to “live forever and never die,” but it is so much more than that! “Eternal” refers not only to length of life but to its fullness.
In this sense, eternal life is now, as we become ever more aware that If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Of this I am a witness, being far more alive in my fifties than I ever was in my twenties! My body ages, but my soul is younger and more vibrant than ever.
Here is the promise to lay hold of: those who are in the shepherd’s care come, in stages, to experience life more fully, to become more fully alive. Jesus our Shepherd promises us eternal life, but this does not wait until Heaven—it is now. We sheep are brought to salvation, to healing, if we will accept it. If we choose freedom and the Shepherd’s cares, it is ours! If we reject some or all of it, then we live apart from His care and vision and become easy prey for savage wolves.
Are you smarter than a sheep? Do you know how to recognize the Shepherd’s voice and follow only Him, or are you foolishly running after worldly advice and sinful priorities? On this Good Shepherd Sunday, strive to be good sheep.
Yes, He called us that—sheep. Sheep have this going for them: they recognize only their shepherd’s voice and run from any other.
The video below is a humorous depiction of the utter frustration of seeking fulfillment in or from this world. It features a pig, Ormie, who goes to ridiculous lengths to obtain some cookies that are just beyond his reach.
Many people are like this, sparing no expense in search of illusory happiness. Some practically self-destruct in their quest to fill the God-sized hole in their heart.
It never works, though, because our desires are infinite; a finite world will always leave us unsatisfied. Complete fulfillment can only be found with God. For now, we walk by faith toward Him, of whom our heart says, “Seek His face. Seek always the face of the Lord!”
Seeking the Lord does several things for us. It helps us to stop thinking that finite things can really satisfy us. It increasingly ends our frustrating, futile, intense pursuit of those things. As our prayerful union with God deepens, our satisfaction with Him increases and He becomes more desirable than the things of this world. More and more we can say that God really does satisfy us.
In the video, Ormie is a very unhappy pig because no matter how hard he tries, he can’t get what he wants. The world seems to taunt him as he tries again and again. Frankly, even if he did get the cookies, they would probably only satisfy him for about twenty minutes!
Allow the cookies to represent happiness. Ormie expends all his effort on pursuing something that this world can’t give him. An awful lot of people live like that, forever chasing butterflies. Somehow, they think that if they can just get that one thing, then they will be happy. They will not—at least not in the infinite sense that their heart really desires. Wealth brings comfort, not happiness. The finite world just can’t provide what many want it to give them.
Enjoy this amusing animated short. Often humor registers in us because it contains an element of truth that we recognize in our own self. Laugh and learn with Ormie the Pig!